Having grown up in a French-Canadian family before my mom remarried a Parisian, and I subsequently moved to New York, I grew up somewhere in between American and French traditions. I know the differences well: The French place a lot of emphasis on rituals—apéro, dinnertime, bedtime—while Americans aren't as strict. Americans tend to have better-renovated kitchens and bathrooms, while the French's mantra is not to fix something that isn't broken. Americans prefer open-plan spaces where everyone can be together, while the French are still very much traditional in the separation of kitchens and dining rooms.
In an American household, it's not uncommon to eat dinner in front of the TV, to do homework in the kitchen, or hell—even to eat a bowl of cereal in bed while watching The Daily Show. In France, this would be blasphemy. If there is one cardinal rule of French decorating, it's that every room serves one purpose, and one purpose only—try telling that to a New Yorker living in a studio apartment, like myself. The kitchen is a place to prepare food; a dining room is for eating; a bedroom is for sleeping.
The living room is a place to come together and have conversations, typically at the apéro hour or after dinnertime. It may seem self-evident, but as Americans, we tend to blur the lines a little more.
These are all small cultural decorating differences that Danielle Postel-Vinay, an American novelist from Wisconsin who married her husband Hadrien, a Parisian, denotes in her latest book, Home Sweet Maison, on the French art of making a home. Not all these rules can be applied in our busy contemporary city lives, but adopting a few of these wisdoms can make for a happier home. Ahead, learn a few handy French decorating rules from the author herself.
"A gilded mirror will add brilliance and light to your salon," writes Postel-Vinay, pointing out that inexpensive reproductions are easy to find if you can't fork out for the real deal at antique stores.
"Keep furniture and art traditional, and colors subdued," she adds. The best living room colors are neutral, according to the French. This makes it easier to introduce eye-catching art or accessories.
"Consider including a provocative or conceptual piece of furniture, artwork, or object," she notes. The living room is meant to bring people together to communicate, and this fosters conversation.
La Salle à Manger
"A large dining table is the focal point of every salle à manger," notes Postel-Vinay. Dinner is the most important ritual for many French families, so it's important for the table to accommodate everyone, and then a few more (even if it means having an expandable table).
"The vaisselier (or hutch) serves two purposes," she adds. Most commonly known as a buffet in America, this piece of furniture houses all your dinnerware to make setting up the table easy. It's also a place to display your best serveware.
"There should be flexibility in the lighting," says the author. Dimmers and candles are a staple in French dining rooms—and they are used every weeknight. Setting a full table (even if it's a simple modest one) is an important ritual that the French preserve even if they're ordering takeout.
"Your kitchen is a workspace," says Postel-Vinay. Only keep things that support the work of cooking on your kitchen counters. She also advocates for keeping knives sharp and replacing any broken tools.
"Your guiding principle is mise en place," she adds. This basically means keeping a strict order of everything in its place, from dinnerware to kitchen utensils and napkins.
"Your pantry should always have these essentials: olive oil, jam, mustard, pickles," she warns. I have known this to be true of French households. Conversely, fridges are usually kept emptier, and filled only with fresh perishable ingredients.
"Televisions and excess furniture should be removed from your bedroom," warns Postel-Vinay. The French keep their bedrooms simple and devoid of any distractions to create a space that's conducive to a good night's sleep.
"Try using a duvet cover for your comforter, along with a fitted sheet (and not flat sheet)," she adds. Bedding should be kept simple: one color, no patterns or frills. This also makes updating your bedding easier every year.
"Choose simple, soothing, minimalist colors for your bedroom," she says. Tones like cream or gray convey calm and comfort and make it easier to fall (and stay) asleep.
La Salle de Bain
"Install an electric towel warmer," suggests Postel-Vinay. This is a staple in most European bathrooms—and it's frankly quite genius. Not only does it dry towels quickly, but it keeps them toasty when you get out of the shower.
"Use a perfume or natural scent in your bathroom," she adds. Either an atomizer, room spray, or essential oil diffuser, having an original scent for your bathroom creates a pleasant atmosphere.
"Find inspiration in pre-twentieth-century French bathrooms," she says. Adding artwork, chandeliers, seating, or gilded mirrors will make your room more than just a functional space.
Next up: Decorate like this, and you're practically French.